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California Drought: Six Years In, How Will the State Keep Saving Water?

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Looking from the dam at Lake Oroville during the rain on December 5, 2014 in Oroville, California.  (Kelly M. Grow/ California Department of Water Resources)

California is working to put into place a framework that will help the state deal with its current water shortage, as well as future droughts that are likely to be more severe with a changing climate. “Making Water Conservation a Way of Life,” a draft report released last week, is the collective effort of five state agencies to fulfill Gov. Jerry Brown’s Executive Order B-37-16, signed in May 2016.

Following the 1976-77 drought in California, the state has taken a series of progressive steps to increase drought resilience, as well as conservation and efficiency measures. More recently, the state passed SB X7‐7 in 2009, which mandates that, by 2020, California achieve a 20 percent reduction in per capita urban water use. And in the spring of 2015, Gov. Brown took the unprecedented step of issuing a statewide mandate on water conservation for the more than 400 urban water suppliers to reduce water use by 25 percent. Between June 2015 and March 2016 water consumption fell 23.9 percent, nearly hitting the governor’s ambitious goal.

After pressure from many water agencies, the State Water Resources Control Board halted the mandatory reductions and instead enacted a “stress test” for water agencies to certify that they have a three-year supply of water under drought conditions.

But with California’s drought extending beyond five years and climate change likely to alter the timing and amount of runoff from the Sierra Nevada, the state’s primary “reservoir,” state agencies are calling for more changes from urban and agricultural water suppliers.

“Californians rose to the challenge during this historic drought and recognized that conservation is critical in the face of an uncertain future. This plan is about harnessing the creativity and innovation that Californians have shown during the driest years in state history and making water conservation a way of life in the years ahead,” said California Department of Water Resources director Mark Cowin. “This plan will help make permanent changes to water use so California is better prepared for whatever the future brings.”

Low water levels in Lake Shasta on August 25th, 2014 during the state's fourth year of drought.
Low water levels in Lake Shasta on August 25th, 2014 during the state’s fourth year of drought. (Kelly M. Grow/ California Department of Water Resources)

Some of the provisions included in the plan would:

  • Make permanent the ban on wasteful water practices such as watering down driveways and other hardscapes;
  • Provide technical help and incentives to aid water suppliers in finding and fixing leaks;
  • Develop new water use standards for urban water suppliers based on local conditions;
  • Require water suppliers to be compliant with new water use targets by 2025;
  • Require water suppliers to submit a five-year drought risk assessment;
  • Improve drought resiliency for small, rural water agencies;
  • Require agricultural water districts to create an annual water budget, a drought plan and measures for increasing efficiency.

While the plan is widely hailed as a necessary step, there will likely be pushback over individual aspects from various stakeholders.


The Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), which advocates on behalf of 430 public water agencies in the state, said it was still analyzing the draft plan and would be submitting comments to state agencies.

“We appreciate the acknowledgement in the draft plan that water management works best at the local level,” said Lisa Lien-Mager, the organization’s director of communications. But added, “Flexibility is a key issue. The state’s long-term conservation framework must allow for local flexibility to meet the objectives of the framework. While an allocation or budget-based approach will work for many of the larger water agencies, we know that smaller, more rural communities will need a simpler approach to meet the goals. They will need alternative approaches.”

While the governor’s conservation mandate from 2015, focused on urban water suppliers, the current plan also includes agricultural suppliers. Ben Chou, a policy analyst for the water program of the Natural Resources of Defense Council, said the state should start by enforcing reporting rules that already exist for agriculture instead of making new ones that are going to be even more difficult to follow, such as water budgets that require information some water suppliers may not have the resources to acquire or analyze.

“Roughly half of agricultural water suppliers are not following these existing reporting requirements and the Department of Water Resources (DWR) has not done much to increase compliance,” said Chou. “We’ve also asked that the agricultural water suppliers be required to standardize how they are reporting data. Right now, they are not required now to submit water management plans in a standard format or to file that report electronically, which makes it difficult for the public and DWR to review plans and reports.”

Chou said that agricultural efficiency efforts should also focus on modernizing water delivery systems, since 12 percent of irrigated farms still receive water on a fixed schedule and not when it’s most needed. And that other efforts should focus on the role of healthy soils in conserving water.

“Practices that improve soil health, such as conservation till and cover cropping, can reduce the need for irrigation by increasing the water infiltration and storage capabilities of soil,” stated a letter of public comment submitted by NRDC, the Pacific Institute, California Climate and Agriculture Network and the Community Alliance With Family Farmers. “On average, conservation-till farmers use 30 percent less irrigation water than their conventional tilling peers.”

Public comments on the conservation draft plan are being accepted until December 19.

This article originally appeared on Water Deeply, and you can find it here. For important news about the California drought, you can sign up to the Water Deeply email list.

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